Last week, in continuation of what threatens to become a proud Petersburg tradition, city fire inspectors closed down The Place and Sochi, two nightclubs that had been scheduled to host the Side by Side International LGBT Film Festival. In the wake of these events and as the festival went underground (another proud Petersburg tradition) at secret screening locations throughout the city, John Cameron Mitchell, the award-winning director of Shortbus and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and festival guest of honor, sat down with Sergey Chernov to talk about the scandal around the festival, official homophobia, Peter the Great, the advantages of a strict Catholic upbringing, Samuel Beckett, Plato, and the beauty of old Russian songs.
Q: It seems as if you go from festival to festival collecting awards. Then you come to St. Petersburg, and it’s a totally different situation. When did you learn about the problem?
A: It was just last week that they found out that Pik [cinema centre] dropped out, breaking the contract. So they had been struggling for the last week to find alternative spaces. Then, the day of the opening, they heard from the space that the fire department was harassing them and closing them. Because they couldn’t communicate to all the audiences and the press so quickly, they were all going to meet outside The Place and talk about what was happening. Suddenly lots of police and rapid response units [showed up], as if it was a riot or something.
We were going to meet outside The Place, where all the audiences and the press were going. We also wanted to tell them what was happening, so there wouldn’t be problems, and also to let them know we had alternate plans for screenings. They have been already doing screenings today: we have a system where we’ve had to keep it private. It’s like the Soviet era, people calling each other on the phone. Avoiding the Internet.
Q: I haven’t heard about this. So the police came to The Place?
A: They came to The Place, and not just police, but riot police. I don’t know if it was OMON. OMON backwards spells “HOMO.” (I can say that because I’m leaving.) With bulletproof vests, as if it was some kind of riot. They were expecting a riot!
Q: How many?
A: I don’t know. Irina [Sergeyeva, one of the organizers] can tell you. But we had security there to make sure everyone was OK. Private security, who were great. A lot of press came; a lot of people came. There were supposed to be screenings all day, so they came in the early afternoon and stayed until after nine, because there were people expected all day.
We didn’t know if there were going to be ultra-right gangs there also: at other gay events the ultra-right has harassed and beaten people up. So Irina wanted to make sure everyone was OK, including the press, the audience, the filmmakers, the guests, the staff, and people from the club. So she heroically stayed there all day, and then suddenly the police came. And then she was afraid the people were going to be arrested, for no reason—because they were coming to see a film! And for the opening night.
I was supposed to DJ and sing and show my film. I wanted to go down there, but she was, like, “Please don’t come.” She wouldn’t allow any of the guests to come, because she didn’t want us to get arrested. And luckily there were no arrests, but it was strange. As I said at the press conference, I feel somewhat honored by the great effort extended by the powers that be to respond to this event, as if it were some kind of national disaster. It was like a hurricane or something. The speed and efficiency with which the authorities have responded to this has been blinding and impressive. But of course their objective was to stamp it out and discourage it in the future. I’m sure some clubs will now be discouraged, because they shut them down summarily. It’s my understanding that they didn’t even specify what the fire code violations were. The idea was, “You’re shut down and we’ll talk about what the violation is later.” And one of the clubs, Sochi, may never open again.
I admire those club owners. I don’t think they realized what kind of a risk doing this festival was, but I admire them for supporting the festival. [The organizers] made a decision to reach out to the cultural powers that be and to the press, and to talk about this as a family event—about families, parents, children. It was a community-based thing, meant to address the issues of queer people in Russia especially and around the world, kind of avoiding sexual content. Even though my film, Shortbus, which is certainly sexual in content, played in the theaters in St. Petersburg and Moscow without incident. They also avoided the word “gay” in the title of the festival, so as not to alarm alarmists, but still they were very forthright with the press, with the local cultural organizations, asking them, “Will you support us in this endeavor?” By being open about it, it seems to have brought down a larger reaction from the powers that be than might have been the case if they tried to do it in a somewhat underground punk way, with just flyers and the Internet. It’s the very publicness of trying to be accepted that seems to provoke, in my view, a terrified and shameful reaction.
To me, it’s shameful. It really is. It’s like when there are so many problems to deal with in the world and the city, things that need to be done, to use those kinds of resources to shut down a cultural organization is just completely hubristic. It’s out of balance; it’s ridiculous and offensive. [It’s] personally [offensive] to me, of course, because it makes me feel like a criminal. And it directly contributes to violence. I’m talking about violence against the self—the suicide rate amongst gay people, because people tell them they’re evil or sick or wrong, when these are just people who love in a different way. It’s completely consensual. It’s a different way of thinking than some, but no one is hurt, no one is forced to do anything. No one is forced to go and see these films, even.
Nobody has been even forced to look at images they don’t want to in terms of advertising. The advertising has been incredibly soft and gentle: “Side by Side.” They have gone out of their way to be non-provoking in terms of imagery and language, and in the content of the films.
Some say they shouldn’t have even tried [to hold the festival in these venues] and seek approval from the cultural ministry et cetera. It should have been done in an underground way. There are plenty of young people who would come. Shortbus was a hit, for example, in Russia, with straight and gay audiences, mixed audiences. It certainly could have an audience without causing scrutiny from the authorities. But I admire the fact that they’re trying a different approach. Eventually, a festival like Side by Side will be no big deal in St. Petersburg. I don’t know how many years it will take, but in every other country the progress of events shows that that kind of event becomes part of a city’s cultural development.
Q: Why do you think they reacted like this?
A: There are gay bars here: certainly they get harassed, but when there’s money, there’s money for the government. What I mean is when there’s business, there’s money for the government, there’s money for the police, there’s money for whatever. It doesn’t make sense to shut down businesses for long. Even to the most hateful person capitalism still rules.
This festival is not necessarily a moneymaker for anybody, even though the festival has certainly spent money, added to the economy of St. Petersburg, and, theoretically, can bring in tourism—from around Russia as well as internationally, as film festivals often do. I believe the authorities found the public nature of the way they announced themselves to be a threat. Whoever these people are (I don’t know who they are), they don’t want to be seen as condoning homosexuality in some way. It’s somehow embarrassing to them; perhaps some of them actually have religious feelings about it. The thing is that this case is unlike Moscow, where the mayor is very publicly against any kind of gay gathering and unashamedly homophobic. And in his very publicness he kind of encouraged, in my view, the violence that ensued from the ultra-right gangs.
In this case, I’d describe it as a weird kind of progress, in that the pressure was indirect, it was cowardly. The mayor didn’t officially say, “This is wrong, it should be stopped.” I know that some Orthodox sites have written about it, but no figures of local stature have come out specifically against the festival, directly. Which to me implies that they’re ashamed to.
The pressure has been very indirect. Certain organs of government, the fire department or other city groups, have certainly put pressure on to stop the festival. This is a kind of indirect pressure, which seems to be more secretive. They are perhaps aware that if they were open and direct about it, it might bring some criticism from quarters of society that they do not welcome. This implies they are aware that what they are doing is wrong or, at least, counterproductive. Bad publicity, let’s say. They were probably thinking it was bad publicity.
But there are plenty of people at this festival from other countries who are going to be talking about it in their own countries. I am writing about it for two magazines in the U.S.
Q: So there will be a reaction?
A: I hope so. I don’t believe that this kind of hatred can go unchallenged, or, at least, can go unspoken about.
It’s truly inspiring, the courage of the organizing, because there’s no advantage to them, except morally and socially, to do this festival. There’s no money in it for them, and there’s a lot of trouble for them. There’s the possible threat of violence. That’s another sign of the progress: there were no counter-demonstrators or violence from the far right.
There were rumblings of it on the Internet earlier, but in the last weeks they couldn’t find any organized opposition in terms of violent skinheads, etc. And they were a little unsure what that meant. Perhaps it’s less of a big deal than it was two years ago in Moscow. I hope that it’s a positive sign. I’m sure that if the police came the other night, one of the ways of describing that might have been, “Oh, we were trying to protect people there.” [But] there was no dialogue. The police didn’t talk to the organizers of the festival. They didn’t say, “We are here to help.” There was just an armed presence, and [there was] no communication. It felt like intimidation because there was no dialogue about it. I was disappointed that the organizers didn’t let me come. I wanted to be there with these very strong, very brave people, who are really taking early steps in what will eventually be a boring fact of life in St. Petersburg: “Yeah, so there are gay people, who gives a shit?”
We all try to get along and see some movies, talk to each other about things that are important to us. How can that in any way be threatening, ultimately?
For example, there’s the gay marriage issue in the U.S. A few years ago it was horrifying for many conservatives. “Oh my God, that means the definition of marriage will crumble. That means all marriages will fall apart.” Everyone’s marriage will miraculously fall apart, because some gay people got married. That hasn’t been the case. You know, divorce rates have not skyrocketed since gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts and California. In fact, it’s dull; it’s boring news now. It’s no longer an election issue of importance because that first step was taken. And it will be the same way here. And, as I mentioned at this press conference, eventually St. Petersburg will have an openly gay mayor, like every other major capital in Europe.
Q: Could it be part of a bigger thing—the return to authoritarian rule? A few years ago, nobody would have paid any attention to it. But now the authorities seem keen to suppress civil society, any protest activities from the grassroots.
A: Right. It’s tightening up again. People were saying that in the 1990s it was not a big deal. It seems like a strange trickle-down effect. [Gays] tend to be equated with political dissent or something. It certainly happened here under Communist rule, but the same things happen in China. Anything that’s too independent, anything that’s a little bit too organized, that is not approved by the government is somehow seen as a threat, whether it is religious, philosophical, social or cultural. Forget political! It’s somehow seen as trouble. And it’s interesting that when I was doing a lot of press about Shortbus, which uses a lot of explicit sexuality, it’s implicitly political, but it’s not explicitly political. In its own way, there’s a certain threat. In some countries it has been banned. And I realized, after doing a little bit of anecdotal research, that sex and repression or violence are weirdly linked in an inverse way.
The more relaxed cultures are about sex, i.e., the fewer proscriptions there are about sexual behavior, the less violence—domestic violence, sexual violence and even war—there is. Do you know of a culture that has invaded another culture militarily that is really relaxed about sex and its cousin, gender? I include the U.S., which has certainly had its share of invasions lately. I believe that if people were more relaxed in their sex life and having a good time, there would be less of a need for war-like behavior. If you look at the cultures that actually have the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual violence, they also have the most laws against sex, consensual sex. I include the U.S. in this group, Russia, certain countries in the Middle East, Africa. They are very tense about sex.
The only country that I know that’s pretty uptight about sex and has its outlets is Japan. It’s not necessarily war-like right now, but it’s always had this way of dealing with sex. It’s censored from the top down. I mean the authorities still censor films: Shortbus still had to be blurred. It’s very interesting what is found threatening. For example, what parts of the body are considered more unacceptable than others. Pubic hairs are not allowed, but semen is OK. It’s culturally fascinating to see what is unacceptable. So the films are censored, but the manga comic books are extreme, over the top. It’s like that game of Whack ‘em All, where something pops out of the hole, you hit it with a hammer, and then another one pops out. When you hit one, it has to come up somewhere else. It doesn’t go away. It pops up in manga. If you hit this film festival over its head, it might pop up again in a different way. Maybe in a less holistic way.
For example, gay people aren’t going away: the same percentage of people will be gay anywhere in the world. There’s a variety of ways for dealing with it. Unfortunately, the way it’s described to me in St. Petersburg, when you’re told there’s something wrong with you, it can drive you to drink. A gay bar is one outlet for being gay, but for me it’s not the most interesting. Drink and sex only go so far in terms of fulfillment. And that’s the only sanctioned place where you can gather and be gay: it can become conformist, stifling, boring and ultimately unproductive. That’s certainly how it was in the U.S. for a long time. It was just the gay bar scene, and now it’s becoming more integrated. There’s no longer unanimity on how to be gay, and the gay mainstream is to me very boring in the U.S. That’s why I am actually energized and moved to be here, to see the people who are working on this festival. The cool people in places that have such trouble are really cool. When you are in New York, the price of acceptance is a certain amount of mediocrity and jadedness. And though I would still choose to be in a place where I was allowed to hold hands with my boyfriend and not worry about losing my job because I was gay, I am still very happy to be here and meet the people I have met. Really cool people.
It gives me hope. It excites me to do things at home better, pushing the envelope, challenging the boundaries in a way that is inclusive. Not just, “Fuck you,” but, “Join us in making something beautiful.” You know, “Let’s make a party, let’s make it fun.” Last night, we went out to a bar. It was more of a straight bar, but we were a bunch of gay people just hanging out, dancing together, being physical, and the people there were a little bit surprised. Then they realized that it was not really threatening. They were raising their glasses to us, and by the end we were all in the same party.
Q: So the festival is continuing?
A: It’s continuing in an underground way. People are saying that this is what it was like in the Soviet Union.
Q: Like yesterday’s press conference at a kindergarten, where everybody had to wear blue shoe covers.
A: That was hilarious! It was fantastic: it was D.I.Y., punk rock. It’s like you make do with what you have. We all had to put on our little shoe condoms because the place where we were doing our meeting didn’t want us to soil the carpets, which, metaphorically, is what is happening here with the authorities. It’s like, OK, we’ll put on the shoes, we’ll put on these galoshes and have this impromptu, completely disorganized press conference that looks unlike any press conference I’ve ever been to. And it was part therapy session: people just hadn’t been able to gather yet. So it was really more for us than for the press.
Q: Not many journalists came.
A: I didn’t know what to expect, but a lot of the press coverage has been as frightened as anyone in the municipal government. It was like, “Should we talk about this? Does this make us uncool? Will we get pressure? Will someone think I’m gay because I’m writing about a gay thing?” It’s so juvenile. There have been people who are writing about it in a mature way. That’s what you do when you’re journalist: you write about it in an impartial way and try to find the story. Other people write about it in a clearly biased way. Some of the coverage has been, “Oh, those gays are so disorganized, they’ll never get this together.” They ignore the fact that there’s actually direct pressure to stop the festival. That is the story. You’re a journalist: whether you’re homophobic or not, just tell the story, if it’s interesting.
Then some will refuse to write about it at all. That is not surprising for the organizers. But they’re doing what they can, not expecting much, but expecting this will be the first step in a long process to remind people that being queer is a natural variation of human interaction: gender and sexuality naturally occur in various forms. And it’s not consensual sexual relations that really frighten people. It is ultimately not a big deal.
I went to the Kunstkamera Museum, because there’s a similar museum in Philadelphia with medical oddities. I was reading about Peter the Great. He was a man who, in his view, was trying to modernize Russia and perhaps promote Descartes and rationality, to show superstition was not useful, in order to help Russia progress economically, artistically, into a world power and a partner with Europe. Birth abnormalities at the time were characterized by the ordinary people as the work of the Devil. And Peter said, “No, in fact I believe that the Devil cannot create a human being. Only God can do that.” And he issued a decree that all these poor, freakish children, if they had died young, were to be brought to him. They could be used as legal tender, I think was the term used. He wanted to show these unfortunate children to the regular people and to celebrate them as part of God’s handiwork. They’re strangely beautiful and sad. They’ve inspired my favorite band (Neutral Milk Hotel, which is an influential band in the U.S) to write a song called “Two-Headed Boy,” about a two-headed boy tapping his jar from the inside.
It was very moving to be there and think about this festival, too. St. Petersburg was, in Peter’s view, the window to the West in a country that was struggling to free itself from superstition and from a certain way of thinking that perhaps was not as useful as it once had been. I believe that general homophobia in Russia, specifically as evidenced by the events of this week, is not useful to the city, to anyone in it. People had described [the city] to me: “Oh, it’s like San Francisco in the U.S. It’s like the second city, but it’s the more beautiful one.” But obviously in terms of the city government, it’s certainly not San Francisco. [City officials] would be probably quite happy not to be compared to San Francisco: they don’t want to think of themselves as a place where gay people could be welcome. It’s somehow embarrassing to them or shameful.
I think of what has happened to Massachusetts since they passed the law on gay marriage: millions and millions dollars have gone into the economy because people come and get married there. Now many states are considering legalizing gay marriage, if only for economic reasons. And the city government, if anyone, should be aware of tourism.
Q: Have there been any problems like this one with festivals anywhere else, in your experience?
A: Not in my experience. Even Istanbul has a gay sidebar to the Istanbul Film Festival. Shortbus played in a gay section at the Istanbul Film Festival. I would have thought St. Petersburg would be more forward thinking than Istanbul in terms of sexuality. I’m sure there have been other places where there’s been trouble, but not in my experience. Singapore is another place that has been pretty anti-gay, and they still have laws on the books where they can shut down anything gay. But even that’s relaxing, I’ve heard. In China there are plenty of gay bars, but there’s not an official festival, because everything has to be [approved by] the central government.
I really haven’t experienced this before. There have been times when my film has been banned. But it’s different from this festival.
But a lot of people have seen my film here before, or have downloaded it.
Q: Shortbus was shown at Dom Kino in St. Petersburg for three months, from January through March, and there was no problem with it.
A: Yeah, it was no problem. In Moscow, they played it even longer and more often. My actors got a lot of MySpace comments from Russian people who loved the film. But I guess what was different about this festival was that they specifically wanted some kind of official, if not approval, then tacit acceptance of the festival as a legitimate cultural event. The organizers sought that out. They felt it was the time to see if things have changed enough to do that. Obviously it hasn’t [changed] for the powers that be.
For the audiences it has. There were plenty of people who came today for all the films that they show, and tomorrow they are expecting to be full. I’m even having a screening in my hotel room. Talk about an alternative film festival! I am having my own film festival screening. I love it. I love these people’s spirit. Other people would be really discouraged, depressed, crushed by it. But they gathered yesterday and did it the old-fashioned way. One of them was like, “I remember this from the 1980s. When there was a band playing, you’d call your friends, and they’d call their friends, and suddenly there was an audience.” And you’re having a better time because of it, because of the secretive nature of it. So that is what it needs to be for now.
Q: You mentioned you were planning to sing?
A: Yes, I was going to DJ and sing at The Place for the opening night. I was going to sing the song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (“Origin of Love”), and also I learned a Russian song.
Have you seen Hedwig? The central metaphor for Hedwig is from Plato’s Symposium, which talks about the origin of love. How we all used to have four arms, four legs, a big head with two faces, and we were so powerful that the gods were frightened and cut us in half, and so now we seek our other half. This is from Plato, 2500 years ago, and it’s the central metaphor. The song tells the story that I show in the film, and I was going to sing that. I’ll still probably sing it tomorrow.
I always like to sing a song in the language of the country that I’m visiting, wherever I go. If I’m in Korea, I learn a Korean song. I often try to sing children’s songs because they’re easier. So I’m singing Spyat ustaliye igrushki (“Tired Toys Are Sleeping,” a Soviet TV lullaby). I was going to dedicate it to the skinheads and the city government because they’ve been working so hard and must be exhausted, working so hard to stop the festival. I was going to tell them it was time for them to go to bed. And, hopefully, I’ll sing it tomorrow, too.
Q: Shortbus somehow reminds me of Almodovar’s films, and just like him, you come from a Catholic background.
A: Yes, very. My father was a general in the army. He was the military commander of the U.S. sector of West Berlin before the Wall came down, and that Berlin figures in Hedwig because she is an East German. Hedwig is an East German boy who got a sex change in order to marry an American soldier so he could go west. He didn’t really want the sex change, but he had to do it to get out. He gets out and then the Wall comes down right away.
My mother was a Scottish teacher and an artist, but [both my parents] were very conservative Catholics. I came out of that setting. My mother was very artistic, but was very sexually repressed and very Catholic. Being gay saved me from a boring, unexamined life, and forced me to question everything that I was told. So I could choose what was good and what was a lie.
Obviously, one of the things that I didn’t accept was that there was something wrong with being gay. It takes a while to get over that.
What I did love about the Catholic upbringing was the idea of doing service, of good works. To me, whatever I make, I want it to be useful. I don’t want to make things just for me. I really want the things I make to be useful to people, in their own lives, like tools, without being didactic.
I’m often interested in gender and sexuality, but I also love rock and roll, Borscht Belt comedy, Beckett and Pinter and Joe Orton.
I had coffee with Samuel Beckett the year before he died. He was a good friend of one of the actors in Shortbus. It was a very powerful experience to meet Samuel Beckett in 1988 in Paris. He was always a hero of mine, for his work, but also for the way he lived. He was a member of the French Resistance during the war, and actively resisted the repression of the Nazis.
He was James Joyce’s secretary. His way of writing and working has influenced millions of artists. He was truly an original. He was truly about the work, and yet he was a very generous man. He was not a Jean-Paul Sartre, where it was all about him. Samuel Beckett was a really kind and generous person, and when I met him I felt that. You don’t always have to meet your heroes, because it can be disappointing, but in this case [it was different].
He had just finished writing; he had reached the end. My friend said, “Are you writing now?” He was quite calm and peaceful about the end of his writing. My friend said, “Are you reading anything?” He was finished with that, too.
All he was doing was writing letters—one on one, back to one to one, instead of to an audience. He was saying goodbye and making sure everyone was OK—with money, recommendations or whatever. And I’ve never seen someone so at peace with the end. Of course that’s what his work was about: the tension about the end. But through his writing he had found what he was hoping to find. I sensed that he had found a kind of peace. And his wife had just died.
So I had wonderful models and guides, heroes in my life. And they also tended to be the iconoclast. They tended to be the rebel: not just the fuck-you rebel, but someone who’s inclusive, trying to create a community, trying to communicate, trying to make the world a better place. By pushing the envelope, yes, but also not ripping up the envelope, but by reminding us we are living in the same world, and there’s really no need for aggression and tension, if you really think about it.
Q: Was Hedwig, as a rock musical, both a stage production and a movie?
A: We developed it on stage, actually in rock clubs, first, for an eventual stage production, over many years. I was a professional actor for many years in television and film and Broadway, but I wanted to do something different because I was bored.
I love rock music and I loved musicals, but I never saw real rock and roll in a musical. It was always fake rock and roll, like Rent. So I worked with a composer who had a band, and we had this metaphor from Plato, and my background in the military. We developed it in clubs to keep it more rock and roll. We kept it out of the theater for a long time. And then eventually it became a full musical off Broadway. It was a hit, it was a success with the critics, and we had an opportunity to make a film. I really wanted to direct it, because I was bored with just acting. Through a sequence of lucky events I was able to direct it exactly the way I wanted to. And it did very well.
But then I burned out on the acting because that was really hard to do. I did it for a year, seven shows a week, and it almost killed me. So I haven’t really acted in anything else. I have just been directing and writing since then, and that was eight or nine years ago.
Someone has convinced me to do Hedwig one more time on stage on Broadway next year, if they can find the right theater. So it’ll sort of be my swan song, the last time.
Q: Have you ever been in a band?
A: No, I had friends who had a band. I was always a rock fan, but I had never performed with a band. I had done some musicals on Broadway, but they were not rock and roll.
Q: And what bands do you like?
A: I have very broad tastes. For example, this band I was talking about, Neutral Milk Hotel, are one of my favorites. They don’t exist anymore, but they were like the Velvet Underground for some people. Not many people bought the record, but everyone who did started a band. I am a Velvet Underground fan, for sure. David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed were sort of my three gods. But I love rock and pop. I am a big soul music fan, so when I DJ, I play a lot of soul, funk, and new wave stuff. I like a lot of jazz vocals. I am not a big club dance music kind of guy. Everywhere I go here, I hear uns-uns-uns: it’s like the new folk music. But to me it’s so boring. I need to hear the fingers on the instrument. And I need to hear mistakes.
I hear a lot of lazy music now. You obviously can be good about electronic, and you can be boring about it, and I hear a lot of boring electronic music. So when I DJ, I play a lot of dance music, but I completely avoid the usual club techno. I can’t take it.
This bar I went to last night had the best music. It was just on CDs or iPod or whatever: old Russian stuff and very eclectic country music. Most of the Russian people didn’t know what was playing. It was Russian songs, old Russian jazz. It was great. I loved it.